Feeds:
Entradas
Comentarios

Confederate Flags in the Jim Crow North

by 

The African American  Intellectual History Society   July 1, 2015
Bronx Confederate Flags 003

Photo: Opponents of local civil rights activists raise a Confederate flag in the Bronx, July 1963

+++

Over the years, what many people recognize as the Confederate flag, the “Stars and Bars,” which decorated several official flags that insurrectionists who fought against the United States flew during the Civil War (1861-1865), has symbolized different types of American identity.

During the 1950s, white Southerners who opposed racial integration and civil rights for black Americans used the Confederate flag as a symbol of their resistance against what they saw as a tyrannical federal government that sought to eradicate their cultures and customs. Some Southerners called these mores their “way of life.”

They were not totally wrong since their official “way of life” involved oppressing American blacks in practically every possible way.

White people could treat black citizens like dogs, or worse, outright terrorize them, at voting polls, in courts, at workplaces, in stores, at theaters, in public schools. Racial segregation even ruled cemeteries.

Racial segregation dominated the South.

So, when Supreme Court decisions and federal laws sided with citizens who fought against racist segregation, white Southerners knew their way of life’s days were numbered. They resisted the civil rights movement. They opposed equal citizenship for black Americans and equal protection of the law for black people.

They showed their defiance the same way Southern insurrectionists did during the Civil War: they flew their Stars and Bars.

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

The Confederate political leader, Alexander Stephens, made plain why the insurrectionists fought that war and flew their flag when he explained that his new government’s, “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the (N)egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Perhaps the cultural and political meanings that the Confederate flag represented in the 1860s and in the 1950s have changed.

Perhaps now, in the 2010s, the Confederate flag means different things – heritage and sectional pride – than it meant in the past: massive resistance against the civil rights movement and a new nation to protect white people’s ability to enslave black people.

Perhaps.

But that flag’s connection to the white nationalist terrorist’s shooting of 9 Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, proves that the Stars and Bars still have a great amount of white nationalist, racist, segregationist meaning woven within its fabric.

+++

During today’s raging culture wars over the Confederate flag, Americans should remember that white Southerners do not have a monopoly on the Confederate flag’s meaning, or its use.

Historians have shown how supposedly “Southern” forms of racism and terrorism, as well as activist movements against those cultural and political practices, existed throughout the nation.

For example, contrary to notions of its strictly rural Southern existence, during its resurgence in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan wielded power and influence in cities across the country.

Even during the 1960s, when some whites outside the South wanted adamantly to oppose any type of civil rights for black Americans, they used two of the strongest, clearest symbols to communicate their political views and cultural identity: KKK hoods and Confederate flags.

In the summer of 1963, black and white civil rights activists in the Allerton Avenue section of the northeast Bronx, New York, staged nonviolent protests for black people to have more jobs at local White Castle restaurants.

Some of their opponents paraded in KKK hoods, waved Confederate flags, and donned Confederate garb (see below pictures). One counter demonstrator tried to have a nine-month old pose for a picture wearing a replica of a Confederate officer’s hat.

Bronx Confederate Flags 002

Bronx Confederate Flags 004

Ironically, many of the white residents of the northeast Bronx neighborhood where those protests occurred descended from Italian immigrants. They stood next to Confederate flags and a person dressed like a Klansman, but at one time the white American nationalists who used those symbols throughout the decades also violently opposed southern Europeans and Catholics immigrating into the United States.

When Bronx whites who opposed the civil rights movement in their own community wanted to express their nationalism and identity, and their political opposition against black employment at White Castle, they knew exactly what symbols to use, what flags to fly, and what chants to shout. They sang, “Dixie.” They yelled, “Go home nigger.” A taxi driver from the community told a New York Post reporter, “We aren’t going to let the colored people take over our neighborhood like they have everywhere else in the city.”

+++

Over the years, the Confederate flag emerged as a very American symbol of white nationalism, white identity, and opposition against any type of civil rights and civil equality for black people in the United States.

Some Southerners claim the Confederate flag as a symbol of their cultural identity and historical heritage, and the Stars and Bars may very well have such sentimental value.

But personal heritage cannot erase or replace national history.

Since the Civil War, Americans around the country have used that flag to symbolize their opposition of black civic equality, even black people’s very humanity.

As twenty first century Americans call for the flag’s removal from public buildings, especially state capitals, historians should also do more research into the ways the Confederate flag served as a powerful national symbol, not merely a regional or sectional one, for white nationalism and domestic racist terrorism.

Brian Purnell

Brian%20Purnell%200454Brian Purnell is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Kentucky, 2013), which won the New York State Historical Association Manuscript Prize in 2012. He has worked on several public history projects with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Bronx County Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library and the University of South Carolina. Before joining the faculty at Bowdoin, he worked for six years at Fordham University as Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project and as an Assistant Professor of African American Studies (2006-2010). He is currently working on two books. The first is an oral history autobiography of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell), a prominent educator and Black Nationalist activist in Brooklyn, New York, during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The second is a history of urban community development corporations since the mid-1960s tentatively entitled, “Unmaking Ghettos: The Golden Age of Community Development in America’s Black Metropolises.” Brian lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Leana Amaez, and their four children: Isabella, Gabriel, Lillian and Emilia.

EPISODE 13: SUZANNA REISS ON DRUG CONTROL, COCA-COLA, AND PHARMACEUTICALS

Today’s guest discusses the history of the coca leaf and the U.S. drug control regime. Amongst other topics, we discuss the importance of coca to both Coca-Cola and Merck and the pharmaceutical industry. For Suzanna Reiss, this provides a way to interpret the history of capitalism across the mid-twentieth century and after.

Suzanna Reiss is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is author of We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire. You can read more about her work here.

Check out this episode!Flavoring extract copy 2

Video of the Week: The Ku Klux Klan parades down Pennsylvania Ave 1928

HNN June 23, 2015

 

America’s Long History of Racial Fear

By

We’re History  June 24, 2015
An Amalgamation Waltz

An Amalgamation Waltz. Edward Williams Clay, 1839 (Photo: American Antiquarian Society)

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.

At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.

The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.

As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.

America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.

Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.

About the Author

Stephen Kantrowitz

Stephen Kantrowitz is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, including Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

NPR JUNE 22, 2015 
These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory

As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment.

When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside.

“It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”

About This Investigation

This is Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. The second story in this report will examine the failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide benefits to those injured by military mustard gas experiments.

Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American.

“They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says.

An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards’ experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race.

For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn’t just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.

Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945 at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945 at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Courtesy of Rollins Edwards

White enlisted men were used as scientific control groups. Their reactions were used to establish what was “normal,” and then compared to the minority troops.

All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren’t recorded on the subjects’ official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn’t tell doctors what happened to them.

Army Col. Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, acknowledged NPR’s findings and was quick to put distance between today’s military and the World War II experiments.

“The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer,” he says. “And I think we have probably come as far as any institution in America on race. … So I think particularly for us in uniform, to hear and see something like this, it’s stark. It’s even a little bit jarring.”

NPR shared the findings of this investigation with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on a House subcommittee for veterans affairs. She points to similarities between these tests and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where U.S. government scientists withheld treatment from black sharecroppers in Alabama to observe the disease’s progression.

“I’m angry. I’m very sad,” Lee says. “I guess I shouldn’t be shocked when you look at the syphilis studies and all the other very terrible experiments that have taken place as it relates to African-Americans and people of color. But I guess I’m still shocked that, here we go again.”

Segregated troops practice movement in protective gear at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland in the early 1940s.

Segregated troops practice movement in protective gear at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland in the early 1940s. Army Signal Corps via National Archives

Lee says the U.S. government needs to recognize the men who were used as test subjects while it can still reach some, who are now in their 80s and 90s.

“We owe them a huge debt, first of all. And I’m not sure how you repay such a debt,” she says.

Mustard gas damages DNA within seconds of making contact. It causes painful skin blisters and burns, and it can lead to serious, and sometimes life-threatening illnesses including leukemia, skin cancer, emphysema and asthma.

In 1991, federal officials for the first time admitted that the military conducted mustard gas experiments on enlisted men during World War II.

According to declassified records and reports published soon after, three types of experiments were done: Patch tests, where liquid mustard gas was applied directly onto test subjects’ skin; field tests, where subjects were exposed to gas outdoors in simulated combat settings; and chamber tests, where men were locked inside gas chambers while mustard gas was piped inside.

Even once the program was declassified, however, the race-based experiments remained largely a secret until a researcher in Canada disclosed some of the details in 2008. Susan Smith, a medical historian at the University of Alberta in Canada, published an article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

U.S. troops in Panama participate in a chemical warfare training exercise with smoke during World War II.

U.S. troops in Panama participate in a chemical warfare training exercise with smoke during World War II. Howard R. Wilson/Courtesy of Gregory A. Wilson

In it, she suggested that black and Puerto Rican troops were tested in search of an “ideal chemical soldier.” If they were more resistant, they could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back, protected from the gas.

The article received little media attention at the time, and the Department of Defense didn’t respond.

Despite months of federal records requests, NPR still hasn’t been given access to hundreds of pages of documents related to the experiments, which could provide confirmation of the motivations behind them. Much of what we know about the experiments has been provided by the remaining living test subjects.

Juan Lopez Negron, who’s Puerto Rican, says he was involved in experiments known as the San Jose Project.

Military documents show more than 100 experiments took place on the Panamanian island, chosen for its climate, which is similar to islands in the Pacific. Its main function, according to military documents obtained by NPR, was to gather data on “the behavior of lethal chemical agents.”

Document

One of the studies uncovered by NPR through the Freedom of Information Act was conducted in the Spring 1944. It describes how researchers exposed 39 Japanese American soldiers and 40 white soldiers to mustard and lewisite agents over the course of 20 days. Read the study.

Lopez Negron, now 95 years old, says he and other test subjects were sent out to the jungle and bombarded with mustard gas sprayed from U.S. military planes flying overhead.

“We had uniforms on to protect ourselves, but the animals didn’t,” he says. “There were rabbits. They all died.”

Lopez Negron says he and the other soldiers were burned and felt sick almost immediately.

“I spent three weeks in the hospital with a bad fever. Almost all of us got sick,” he says.

Edwards says that crawling through fields saturated with mustard gas day after day as a young soldier took a toll on his body.

Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him.

Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him. Amelia Phillips Hale for NPR

“It took all the skin off your hands. Your hands just rotted,” he says. He never refused or questioned the experiments as they were occurring. Defiance was unthinkable, he says, especially for black soldiers.

“You do what they tell you to do and you ask no questions,” he says.

Edwards constantly scratches at the skin on his arms and legs, which still break out in rashes in the places he was burned by chemical weapons more than 70 years ago.

During outbreaks, his skin falls off in flakes that pile up on the floor. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what he went through.

But while Edwards wanted people to know what happened to him, others — like Louis Bessho — didn’t like to talk about it.

His son, David Bessho, first learned about his father’s participation as a teenager. One evening, sitting in the living room, David Bessho asked his dad about an Army commendation hanging on the wall. David Bessho, who’s now retired from the Army, says the award stood out from several others displayed beside it.

“Generally, they’re just kind of generic about doing a good job,” he says. “But this one was a bit unusual.”

The commendation, presented by the Office of the Army’s Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, says: “These men participated beyond the call of duty by subjecting themselves to pain, discomfort, and possible permanent injury for the advancement of research in protection of our armed forces.”

Attached was a long list of names. Where Louis Bessho’s name appears on Page 10, the list begins to take on a curious similarity. Names like Tanamachi, Kawasaki, Higashi, Sasaki. More than three dozen Japanese-American names in a row.

“They were interested in seeing if chemical weapons would have the same effect on Japanese as they did on white people,” Bessho says his father told him that evening. “I guess they were contemplating having to use them on the Japanese.”

(Left) A portrait of Louis Bessho from 1969. (Right) Military orders from April 1944 for Japanese-American soldiers, including Bessho, who were part of the military's mustard gas testing at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

(Left) A portrait of Louis Bessho from 1969. (Right) Military orders from April 1944 for Japanese-American soldiers, including Bessho, who were part of the military’s mustard gas testing at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

Documents that were released by the Department of Defense in the 1990s show the military developed at least one secret plan to use mustard gas offensively against the Japanese. The plan, which was approved by the Army’s highest chemical warfare officer, could have “easily kill[ed] 5 million people.”

Japanese-American, African-American and Puerto Rican troops were confined to segregated units during World War II. They were considered less capable than their white counterparts, and most were assigned jobs accordingly, such as cooking and driving dump trucks.

Susan Matsumoto says her husband, Tom, who died in 2004 of pneumonia, told his wife that he was OK with the testing because he felt it would help “prove he was a good United States citizen.”

Matsumoto remembers FBI agents coming to her family’s home during the war, forcing them to burn their Japanese books and music to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Later, they were sent to live at an internment camp in Arkansas.

Matsumoto says her husband faced similar scrutiny in the military, but despite that, he was a proud American.

“He always loved his country,” Matsumoto says. “He said, ‘Where else can you find this kind of place where you have all this freedom?’ ”


NPR Investigations Research Librarian Barbara Van Woerkom contributed reporting and research to this investigation. NPR Photo Editor Ariel Zambelich and reporters Jani Actman and Lydia Emmanouilidou also contributed to this story.

The Charleston Massacre and the Rape Myth of Reconstruction


Time Works Wonders

For That I Do Suspect The Lusty Moor Hath Leap’d Into My Seat.” Thomas Nast, 1870 (Photo: Library of Congress)

As Dylann Roof massacred nine people in cold blood after they studied the Bible together on Wednesday night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, he told a church member who survived that he felt compelled to carry out the murders. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Roof said. “And you have to go.” We might take such a bizarre statement as a sign that this act of racial terrorism was also the act of a lunatic. But if Dylann Roof is deranged, his derangement is deeply steeped in a history of white supremacy that has long expressed the threat of black economic and political power in sexual terms.

Apologists for slavery often contended that people of African descent were by nature bestial, and that they would surely revert to a state of savagery without the discipline of enslavement. These fears continued to haunt the white southern imagination through the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, as terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan gained support from significant segments of the white southern populace in the late 1860s by claiming they acted as forces of law and order against hordes of black thieves and rapists intent on causing mayhem and despoiling white women. In truth, there were no waves of black crime during Reconstruction, and the Klan was little more than the paramilitary arm of the resurgent southern Democratic Party. The Klan existed to intimidate, brutalize, and murder economically ambitious and politically assertive black people and their allies, and its presence faded in the early 1870s as much because white Democrats had succeeded in retaking control of many southern state governments as because the federal government cracked down on the organization.

The unmistakable link between fears of black power and fears of the sexual violation of white women, however, not only outlasted Reconstruction but became an increasingly prominent element of white southern racial pathology as the nineteenth century progressed. Even the so-called Redemption of state governments by white Democrats could not entirely contain black political activism, and the chronically depressed southern economy produced masses of economically insecure white southerners who felt that black agricultural and industrial workers took too many of the region’s scarce resources, lacked proper deference to white people, and did just a bit too well for themselves. The widespread anxiety among white men that they would not be able to provide for their wives and children easily transformed into concerns that they would not be able to protect their wives and children. On the racially charged landscape of the post-emancipation South the logic of white supremacy called forth the violent response that it always did.

The phenomenon of lynching, which is America’s signature act of racial terror, began a noticeable rise in the 1880s and became epidemic by the turn of the twentieth century. And it was practically axiomatic in the minds of white southerners that such extralegal mob violence was necessary to clamp down on black sexual predators with designs on the bodies of white women. Even southern congressmen used such claims to defend lynchings. In the early 1920s, for example, Representative James Buchanan of Texas voiced his opposition to proposed federal anti-lynching legislation by denouncing “the damnable doctrine of social equality which excites the criminal sensualities of the criminal element of the Negro race and directly incites the diabolical crime of rape upon white women. Lynching follows as swift as lightning, and all the statutes of State and Nation cannot stop it.” Representative Thomas Upton Sisson of Mississippi agreed, asserting that white southern men “are going to protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of the women of the South then lynching will stop.”

Such wildly racist delusions, not to mention the expressions of patriarchal control over white women, said far more about white men than they did about black men. Indeed, in light of the systematic rape of black women by white men dating back to the era of slavery, it takes no deep psychological insight to observe that the lurid horror of black rapists conjured by white southerners was more a matter of projection than of reality. The belief remained unshakable nonetheless, and those bold and courageous enough to observe that the threat of the black rapist was a myth placed themselves in tremendous danger. Most famously, when Tennessee journalist Ida B. Wells argued in the 1890s that most liaisons between white women and black men were consensual and that the specter of the black male rapist was a lie, a white mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper. Wells left the South altogether because she was sure she would be murdered.

The numbers of lynchings in the United States would eventually crest and then diminish over the course of the twentieth century, but the myth of the black rapist was a stubborn one to uproot. It was never far from the surface in white southern defenses of segregation during the Civil Rights Era, for instance, with the hostility to the prospect of integrated schools, swimming pools, and other public spaces often conveyed in terms of the idea that integration would mean “mongrelization,” as even black male children surely had their eyes on white girls. Wednesday’s attack in Charleston is plain evidence that the myth still thrives today, and that it is deadly.

What happened in Charleston is so rife with symbolism and so anchored in America’s racial past that it nearly leaves a person breathless. The shootings happened at a church that has long been the center of black activism in the state of South Carolina, in a city that was the heart of the mainland colonial transatlantic slave trade. That church is one that Denmark Vesey, who planned a thwarted slave rebellion, helped found in 1818, and that his son redesigned after whites burned the original building to the ground. The shootings happened one day after the 193rd anniversary of when Vesey’s rebellion would have transpired and two days before the Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The shooter proudly placed a license plate on the front of his car bearing the Confederate battle flag that flew at full staff in front of the statehouse in Columbia even the day after the atrocity.

One smaller and perhaps less-observed symbolic element, however, may be the most telling. Dylann Roof was captured and arrested in the town of Shelby, North Carolina, which is the birthplace of author Thomas Dixon. Dixon’s most famous work, entitled The Clansman, glorifies the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and imagines the organization as having saved the white South from a fusion of white abolitionist and black southern political rule and from legions of former slaves set on raping white women. Dixon’s book, published in 1905, was a vicious and mendacious act of distorted historical revisionism. But it was a powerful one. Ten years later it served as the source material for D.W. Griffith’s pathbreaking film The Birth of a Nation. The film places the attempted rape of a white woman by a former slave at the very core of the story, and it shows Klansmen as the saviors of white civilization from an oppressive government that is trying to forcibly impose black equality. The movie nearly singlehandedly prompted a national revival of the Ku Klux Klan. And it was a film that white audiences lined up for months to watch. That was true not only in the South. It was true everywhere in the United States. Fifty years after the Civil War ended, white Americans largely agreed that the nation born out of its ashes was one that rightfully belonged only to them.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

A Rebellious Act: The Founding of Charleston’s African Church


Emanuel AME Church

Emanuel AME Church. (Photo: wenzday01 flickr CC)

Last week, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.

Richard Allen founded America’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over the use of church funds and of its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,” – it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. – which was affiliated with the A.M.E. Church. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but also the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the slave trade era, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church was a revolutionary act.

The African Church was a unique institution in black Charleston because of its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines – free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.

White authorities feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church dealt with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but also offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and remained in Charleston.

Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants’ alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought specifically to prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.” White Charlestonians felt they actively needed to prevent the independent worship of free and enslaved blacks.

In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church. Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines” and accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants. Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church were well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”

Another published account of the proceedings that followed the Vesey plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.” In the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.

Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the Bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed, “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.” Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.

Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-establish the church, the state would soon reaffirm its commitment to outlawing black churches and schools. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. As in many other southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.

Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they reveal how the African Church specifically, and religion more broadly, figured significantly in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white-controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represented an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target.

The murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.

A version of this article originally appeared on Marksism.

About the Author

John Marks

John Marks is a doctoral candidate in history at Rice University interested in race, slavery, and identity in the Atlantic World. His dissertation examines racial identity among free people of color in Charleston, South Carolina and Cartagena de Indias during the Age of Revolutions.

Seguir

Recibe cada nueva publicación en tu buzón de correo electrónico.

Únete a otros 1.185 seguidores